That Nikola Tesla is essentially the father of the modern electricity grid yet died broke in obscurity would seem to make him an ideal choice of biopic subject. Thomas Edison tried to destroy him in a smear campaign, George Westinghouse took his patents, JP Morgan cut off his funding, and hey, wasn’t there something about a death ray? Was Tesla a martyr to capitalism, too pure a scientist for the cold realities of business? Or perhaps a more prosaic example of high-octane mind that revved too high and burned out its clutch?
Tesla, a new film from Michael Almereyda (Marjorie Prime, Experimenter) starring Ethan Hawke as the inventor isn’t so gauche as to offer either of these obvious takes. It’s too tasteful to offer much of any take beyond “what if art?” Tesla‘s narrative devolves into a series of artistic choices. And maybe that‘s the take, that Nikola Tesla is whatever framing device we apply to him. Which is, like many things in Tesla, certainly a choice, though sort of a bloodless one.
The film is narrated, strangely, by Anne Morgan, played by Eve Hewson, aka the daughter of Bono from U2, who between this and The Knick has clearly found her niche as Victorian-era femme fatale (playing the daughter of a famous person is also apt). Hewson’s Morgan does double duty as the voice of God narrator who explains about Tesla being so mysterious and occasionally calls time out, Zack Morris-style, pausing Tesla‘s weirder scenes to explain why things probably didn’t happen this way in real life. She also occasionally compares historical figures in terms of how many Google results that figure’s name produces, a system of measurement that feels a bit like the movie equivalent of starting your essay with “Webster’s dictionary defines ’emancipation’ as…”
Anne Morgan narrates as Tesla first works in Edison’s workshop, then sets out on his own, inventing his sparkless alternate current induction motor, and teams up with Westinghouse while Thomas Edison (played by Kyle MacLachlan) tries to smear him by electrocuting animals and people. Through it all, Tesla himself says very little. Ethan Hawke’s forehead furrow does most of the heavy lifting, as Tesla oscillates between scared and annoyed at the world outside his mind. What’s this guy’s deal, anyway?
While Tesla himself is kind of a dud, Tesla‘s casting is consistently interesting, from MacLachlan as the pompous Edison, to Jim Gaffigan as Westinghouse and Ebon Moss-Bachrach as Tesla’s devoted assistant, Szigeti (Bachrach’s portrayal of Desi from Girls might be the enduring depiction of a 2010s fuckboi).
Hewson’s Anne Morgan eventually shows up in real-time, as a politically-minded rich girl who’s clearly in love with the flighty inventor. Why Tesla doesn’t reciprocate isn’t entirely clear, as Anne Morgan is both beautiful and obscenely rich. Though there is one scene where he jilts her at a roller-skate party because he hates the sight of her pearls. Is he just an eccentric, is that his deal? Their dynamic doesn’t quite fly because the film never quite captures the essence of either character; both feel more like collections of factoids.
In a way, Almeryda’s film splits the difference between slick, Aaron Sorkin-esque Rosebudding and new wavey, Sofia Coppola art-punk. Almereyda comes Sorkinly close to blaming all of Tesla’s future troubles on a jilted lady, before seeming to reconsider and drowning the narrative in ostentatious art. Almereyda shoots characters in front of painted backdrops, has Tesla sing Tears for Fears to the camera, and what the heck, even gives Thomas Edison an iPhone in one scene. Who cares? It’s only fashion.
It could’ve been a beautiful disaster, and yet Tesla‘s narrative retreats into its own navel almost at the exact point that it becomes convincing as an ideal lens for a portrait of the Victorian era. All that striving towards a scientific utopia seems to come from an abiding morbidity. They were all in love with dyin’, they were doin’ it in Menlo… Tesla survives multiple family members and Thomas Edison’s first wife dies young. Edison is so generally full of grief that he spends the latter part of his life working on a way to communicate with the dead. In Almereyda’s telling, Tesla also falls for the actress Sarah Bernhardt (Rebecca Dayan), famous mainly for her ability to die dramatically and who sleeps in a coffin to help prepare herself for the eternal slumber. Yet this age of discovery is also the gilded age, the playground of the robber barons, and all the hope and utopianism that seems to animate Tesla, Westinghouse, and Anne Morgan, eventually curdles from exposure to the dog-eat-dog realities of unchecked capitalism.
It’s an intriguing snapshot, and one we have to give Almereyda at least partial credit for — why include Bernhardt (a minor footnote at best in Nikola Tesla’s story) if not as a comment on the age? If this facet of the film had been sharp more Tesla could’ve been something special. Yet the captivating slice of Victorian life is drowned out by the feint towards the traditional biopic and the conspicuous contemporary touches. Almereyda making a show of himself as storyteller takes away from his story, and seems to betray a lack of confidence in it.